The Dorje Shugden Controversy

Destroying Tibetan Buddhism in Order to Save It?

Dorje Shugden
Dorje Shugden on an altar. © Innerlight / GNU Free Documentation License / Wikipedia Commons

I have hesitated to weigh in on the Shugden controversy because I practice Zen Buddhism, and the Shugden controversy involves aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that are mystifying even to other Buddhists. But the continuing demonstrations against His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama need to be explained, so I will do the best I can.

Dorje Shugden is an iconic figure who is either a protector of Buddhism or a destructive demon, depending on whom you ask. I've written elsewhere about how Dorje Shugden originated and where he fits into Tibetan history and doctrine:

Read More: Who Is Dorje Shugden?

Much of Tibetan iconography features deities and heavenly beings representing the dharma or an energy or function of enlightenment, such as compassion. In tantric Buddhist practice (which is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism), meditation, chants, and other practices that focus on these iconic characters cause the energy or function they represent to arise in the practitioner and become manifest. Tantra is also called "identity yoga" or "deity yoga."

Or, put another way, the deities are archetypes of enlightenment and also of the tantra practitioner's own fundamental nature. Through meditation, visualization, ritual, and other means, the practitioner realizes and experiences himself as an enlightened deity.

The Tibetan Distinction

Tibetan Buddhism, with its elaborate schema of who is a consort, reincarnation or wrathful manifestation of whom, does seem to see the iconic characters as a bit more real and solid than do other Buddhists. And this seems out of keeping with Buddhism's non-theistic nature.

As Mike Wilson explains in this very insightful essay, “ Schisms, murder, and hungry ghosts in Shangra-La - internal conflicts in Tibetan Buddhist sect,” the Tibetans consider all phenomena to be creations of mind. This is a teaching based on a philosophy called Yogacara, and to some extent it is found in many schools of Mahayana Buddhism, not just Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tibetans reason that if people and other phenomena are creations of mind, and gods and demons are also creations of mind, then the gods and demons are no more or less real than fish, birds and people. Thus, the heavenly beings are not just archetypes, but "real," although empty of inherent existence. This interpretation is, I believe, unique to Tibetan Buddhism.

See the Western Shugden Society for more explanation from the perspective of Shugden followers.

Why Is This a Big Deal?

In "The Shuk-Den Affair: Origins of a Controversy," academic Georges Dreyfus details the origins and development of the Shugden mythology, and why His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to object to it in the mid-1970s. To violently encapsulate a very complicated story, the Shugden controversy has deep roots in an old dispute about the authority of the Dalai Lama. Shugden veneration also has a history of stirring up staunchly sectarian, even fundamentalist, passions among its followers, setting schools of Tibetan Buddhism against each other.

On several occasions, His Holiness has stated these reasons for discouraging Shugden veneration:

  • Shugden worship encourages sectarian enmity. His Holiness wants to promote non-sectarianism and tolerance among the major schools and various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Loyalty to Shugden is counterproductive to this goal.
  • Shugden worship is not Buddhism. This is obviously true. Buddhism is not a spirit-worship religion. I say more about this below.
  • Shugden worship is bad for Tibet. Among other things, it is alleged that the Shugden sect, which goes about protesting the Dalai Lama wherever he speaks publicly, is being supported by the government of China. There is no direct evidence of this. However, the government of China makes robust use of the Shugden protests for propaganda purposes.

Dangers of Identity Yoga?

Looking at this from the perspective of a Zen student -- my understanding of Shugden is that his only reality is that created by the actions of those devoted to him. In other words, Shugden exists as a manifestation of whatever behavior he inspires. From here, that behavior appears to be fanatical and is not coming from a place of wisdom, in which all dualisms disappear.

The bottom line -- and I don't see that Tibetan Buddhism is an exception -- fanatical devotion to anything, especially devotion that creates schisms and enemies -- is antithetical to Buddhism. 

Although I don't believe Dorje Shugden has any sort of objective reality, I do wonder if there is something about Dorje Shugden practices that creates fanaticism. Such practices are esoteric, and I don't know specifically what they are, so this is speculation.

However, we have another recent example of another sect whose obsession with violent and highly sexualized tantric images seems to have driven a few people off the proverbial edge. In his book A Death on Diamond Mountain, Scott Carney documented that Michael Roach and his followers were primarily focused on such imagery. Spending too much time visualizing wrathful tantric beings may be detrimental to mental health. But, again, I am speculating.


According to Mike Wilson, cited above, Shugden devotees are most likely responsible for the ritualistic murders of three anti-Shugden clerics in Dharamsala in 1997. At the same time, the Shugden sect perpetually complains that it is the victim of religious discrimination, because the Dalai Lama does not permit observance of Shugden devotion.

The answer for the Shugden followers is obvious -- declare independence from all Tibetan Buddhist institutions and start your own sect. They appear to have done this -- the main group is the New Kadampa Tradition, headed by a lama named Kelsang Gyatso. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said more than once that people are perfectly free to worship Dorjey Shugden; they just can't do it and call themselves his students. 

Read More: About the Dalai Lama Protesters


Shugden followers will complain that this article presents a one-sided view. If it does, that one side is that Buddhism is not a spirit worship religion. At a time when Buddhism is still being introduced to the West, it is damaging to all schools of Buddhism to be confused with spirit worship.

Tibetan Buddhism is being systematically flushed out of Tibet by the government of China. As Tibetan Buddhism scatters, disembodied, around the globe, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is struggling to maintain some cohesion and integrity within it. The Shugden controversy clearly is weakening that effort.